John Wells discusses his feature film directorial debut
John Wells began his career as a writer and director on the popular '80s series China Beach, but made a name for himself as en executive producer of such groundbreaking television series as ER, The West Wing and Southland. Wells has also had a hand in producing such popular films as The Peacemaker, One Hour Photo, Far From Heaven, White Oleander, Infamous and I'm Not There. Now the producer returns to writing and directing with his feature film debut, The Company Men, which opens in theaters on January 21st.
The film stars an all-star cast that includes Oscar winners Ben Affleck (Good Will Hunting), Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive), Chris Cooper (Adaptation) and Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves), as well Maria Bello (Grown Ups), Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married) and Craig T. Nelson (The Proposal). The movie takes place in Massachusetts and looks at the way our economy and, as a result, corporate downsizing has affected families and entire communities. The story revolves around Bobby (Affleck), a white-collar corporate employee who, after loosing his job, is forced to work for his brother-in-law (Costner) installing drywall. We recently had a chance to speak with writer/director John Wells about his new film, the cast, shooting in Boston and the affects of the economy on corporate America. Here is what he had to say:
To begin with, when you were writing the script, were you inspired by the current economic conditions in America or did you draw your inspiration for the screenplay from somewhere else?
John Wells: No, the impetus for it, although it is not his story by any means, is something that happened with my brother-in-law. He had lost his job. He was very well educated and had had lots of opportunities in his career but his company was merged with a Swiss firm and about five thousand people lost their jobs on the same day. He started telling me what was going on in his life and there were things I didn't know about it. I began researching a little bit and discovered I was writing it to go right along with this economy, which nobody anticipated just how difficult this would be.
Were there other true stories that you heard or read about, that you were able to draw inspiration from for the screenplay?
John Wells: Oh absolutely, yeah. I like to do a lot of research on anything I do, so I went online first on some of the job sites and chat rooms. I just posted a little note saying that I was interested in writing about this and that people could give me their stories if they wanted to. I got thousands of responses in just the first week. I started following up on those, I read them all, called a lot of people and communicated with people directly. So almost everything in the film is an anecdote or something that people told me about their real experiences.
Did you always intend for the story to take place in Massachusetts, and if not, why did you decide to set it there?
John Wells: I went to school in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Melon, and when I was there as a student the steel mills were all going. Then when I went back again and they were closed, these kind of large hulks of metal were all that was left. So I first thought it would be about the steel industry and then I discovered, when we went to make the movie, that between since I had been there last they had all been torn down. The steel manufactures from Brazil, South Korea and China that had closed down the American steel business actually came in, took them over and tore them down for scrap. So I started looking around for some other industry that might work and someone suggested to me the automobile industry, which I thought was ridiculous. I never thought anything would happen to Ford or GM. Shows you how much I know. Then someone suggested non-military-ship building, so we ended up in Boston shooting because of the four rivers shipyard down in Quincy. When we went scouting it was just such a beautiful and extraordinary place. It reminded me of why I had wanted to do the movie in the first place, so that is why we chose to do it there.
How did you end up getting Ben Affleck to agree to do the film and do you think that he added a certain authenticity to it because he is from Boston?
John Wells: Yeah. It was really just that I was interested in him as an actor. I had really loved his work in Changing Lanes a few years ago, a wonderful Roger Michell film that he had done. I contacted him, he read it, liked it and said he'd do it. It was all happening at the same time but eventually I said to him that it looked like we were going to be filming in Boston and he said, "Oh, I think I'm going to shoot my movie there too so I better rent a house."
Was Maria Bello cast because of your connection to her from "ER" or did she just come up naturally in the casting process?
John Wells: Yeah it was. I knew her pretty well from ER and I was able to call her. She was one of the last people who came into the picture because she wasn't really available. Then it turned out that they were shooting Grown Ups up there at the same time and she could fit it into her schedule. So she was very kind to come in and do it for me, which was great and she is terrific in the picture.
Do you find that when you are writing a script that you have certain actors in mind, or are you really writing the characters independently and then casting the actors that best fit the roles?
John Wells: I try really hard not to have anyone in particular in mind, simply because if they don't want to do it you feel kind of frustrated. But also I think I inevitably end up writing a little bit in a style for who they are, if I'm imagining different actors speaking in different ways. Then sometimes other actors will recognize that you didn't write it for them. "Hey, that sounds like Tom Cruise!" So I try not to. I will sometimes write for someone who is either not alive anymore or is no longer right for the role. I might like something about them and it helps me to hold that character in my head, so I'll do that sometimes. Not in this case but I did kind of write Jack for Kevin Costner, never thinking he would actually do it and then he did. So that was a surprise.
It's a different kind part for him, playing an average, Massachusetts, blue-collar guy, did he have any trouble adjusting to the role?
John Wells: No, he is a blue-collar guy, you know? He and I had both been carpenters and had done quite a bit of carpenter work, so we stood around comparing old tool belts together.
Can you talk about the relationship between Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Bobby (Affleck) in the film, the importance of marriages and how they have been affected by the current economical situation?
John Wells: It really came from the people that I interviewed. As I said I interviewed a lot of people and it was a very common theme. That the man in the relationship was still in shock after being fired and that the woman went into action rather quickly. Then only over time was the man able to grasp the gravity of the situation. The spouse usually understood the situation more quickly then the person who actually lost their job. The spouse would really come through for them. It wasn't always the man that lost the job; by the way, sometimes it was the woman. Something that I heard over and over again was that the experience that I wanted to get to in the film, which was one of discovering that all these people around you really care about you. That they are prepared to pull for you, help you and that a community of friends and family surrounded you. That is what really pulled them through in difficult times.
Although you have directed countless television episodes, this is your feature film directorial debut. Were there any surprises on the set for you or did your experience in the past prepare you for making this film?
John Wells: Well my experience in the past prepared me for it but the joy of it was getting to work with the actors. I've had the pleasure of working with a lot of wonderful actors but to work very specifically on material for a film with them was really great. You know part of it is, when you are doing episodic television, there isn't really an end that you are directing towards. There are always going to be more of them so you are holding back a little bit. In this one we are having conversations about the entire arc of the character. Who is this person for the piece and how are we going to best dramatize that both visually and in the performance? That was a great pleasure and it reminded me of a lot of the theater that I had done a long time ago. I found that to be a lovely experience.
Your cinematographer on the film was Roger Deakins; who worked on the Coen Brother's movies and "The Shawshank Redemption," among other great movies. What was it like collaborating with him and do you think having him on the project helped you as a first time director?
John Wells: Oh sure, I was remarkably fortunate to get him to agree to do the film. He was gracious and patient with me. He gave me five weeks of his time before we started shooting in the pre-production period to walk all the sets with me, make decision and help us plan. When we got into it, we didn't have a lot of time to plan because it was such a small film. So when we got in to it on the set we had already decided a lot of things and I was able to spend time with the actors. That was a great luxury. He is a tremendous cinematographer with a wonderful eye, so he made me look good.
The ending of the film is optimistic and up beat, are you optimistic in regards to the future of our country's economy and why was it important for you to end the film on a high note?
John Wells: Well I was trying to get across, and I do think that the film is ultimately hopeful, the resiliency of the American spirit. Its one of the great things about us as Americans, I think. I was trying to get across what I heard from a lot of people in the research, which is that you will probably get a job that earns you less than you made before. You will probably have less then you had before in the sense of what the job is, but at the same time these jobs and people's opportunities in this economy are going to come from other people taking chances. It will come from the people that are willing to actually go out and take chances, rather than being hired by a major corporation and what we think of as the old industrialized or commercial world. I was trying to get at that and again, it was a recurring theme from the people that I spoke to during my research. They came out on the other side making less and having very difficult times, but that they felt better for the experience in many ways. They were closer to their family, closer to their friends and they felt like they had a community to be around them, because they came out okay and they survived. There are so many tens of millions of people that have gone through this experience now. I think often times in the middle of it people feel alone, and you're not alone. You have to look around at who is there to help you.
Finally, you were an executive producer on "The West Wing," and that show was really good at taking real-life political situations and turning them into fictional entertainment, much like this film does. If "The West Wing" was still on the air today, do you think you would tackle some of the tough situations that the country is going through now, and what would Jed Bartlet think of President Obama's first two-years in office?
John Wells: Well we would definitely be dealing with all those issues because that is what the show thrived on. Job creation now, in this economy that we are, in is going to be very difficult. It's got to come from people putting money back into the system and being willing to take chances. It's not an original thought with me, I think all the economists, certainly the Obama administration and the President, are saying the same thing, which is this will come from where it usually comes from. These recoveries come from lots of individual people getting back into the work place and finding innovative things to do, new products to sell or new ways to do things. Nobody believes this will be any different and I'm sure that is what we would be talking about on The West Wing.